Research project: Exhibitions as Contested Sites


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Museum investigators

  • Dr Lynda Kelly , Manager Online, Editing and Audience Research

External investigators

Funded by


Project overview
This international research project investigated the role of museums with an emphasis on how institutions can deal effectively with the challenge of developing exhibitions on controversial issues and sensitive topics. It explored and analysed museological debates about the contemporary role of museums and theoretical and conceptual issues concerning the nature of controversy in a broader perspective.

Part of the project situated controversy in an historical context by investigating how particular exhibitions in the past had been defined as controversial and how this had affected the role and functioning of museums. An examination of the role of the media was also a key part of the project.

The expectations of museum staff, stakeholders and audiences were explored to gauge responses to controversy and to clarify potential roles for museums in the future. The study was being conducted both within Australia and internationally through a range of participating organisations.

Controversial subjects may raise alternative ideas, while challenging an individual's or group's values, beliefs, ideologies or moral position. Controversies can be categorised as varied perspectives of a topic; differing belief systems and values due to life experiences and world views, as well as differing objectives and interests by a range of stakeholders. Difficult subjects offer a range of interpretive opportunities such as to:

  • provide information
  • reflect current debates
  • challenge and validate opinions
  • promote engagement through decision making and problem solving
  • foster critical thinking skillsfacilitate learning about other perspectives/values
  • transform attitudes and values
  • foster relevance to local and global problems through linking events/ideas to real life
  • promote tolerance

Research questions
This project studied very significant questions about the roles and functioning of museums in the 21st century such as:

  • What roles can museums play in a climate of contestation?
  • What are the ways that museums can function as civic spaces?
  • How can museums become more relevant to communities, exhibit broader themes and narrate competing stories that material objects signify?
  • What added value can museums offer as opposed to, or in collaboration with, other media in discussing and presenting sensitive subjects?
  • How can museums meaningfully engage audiences with topics such as racism, genetic engineering, stem cell research, sectarianism, sustainability of the environment, poverty, domestic violence, and new interpretations of colonialism and war?

Research methods
A range of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies were used including:

phone surveys of adults in Sydney and Canberra

  • exit surveys of visitors to institutions in Sydney, Canberra, Ottawa and Quebec
  • focus groups of visitors, museum staff and other stakeholders
  • depth interviews with museum staff, museum management, journalists and media commentators
  • case studies
  • literature reviews

Research papers

Proceedings from the Industry Symposium held in November 2003 were published in the Open Museum Journal, Volume 8 special edition Contest and Contemporary Society: redefining museums in the 21st century

Cameron, F. (2003). Transcending Fear - engaging emotions and opinions - a case for museums in the 21st century. Open Museum Journal, Vol 6 New Museum Developments and the Culture Wars.

Ellison, J. (2003). Re-visioning the Media, Museums & Controversy: A Preliminary Case Study. Open Museum Journal, Vol 6 New Museum Developments and the Culture Wars.

Kelly, L. (2003). Applying Research to Practice: visitors talk about museums. Paper presented at Art Museums as Sites of Communication Symposium, Canberra.

Participating Organisations
A wide variety of institutions are involved in the Exhibitions as contested sites project, both within Australia and internationally.

Research leader

  • Department of History, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney

Industry partners

  • Australian Museum, Sydney
  • Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Participating organisations (Australia)


  • Australian Museum, Sydney
  • Australian War Memorial, Canberra
  • National Museum of Australia, Canberra
  • The Migration Museum
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales

Participating organisations (Canada) 

  • Canadian Museum of Civilisation
  • Canadian War Museum
  • Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia
  • Royal Ontario Museum
  • Royal Tyrrell Museum

Participating organisations (New Zealand)

  • Auckland Museum
  • Te Manawa, Palmerston North

Participating organisations (U.S.A.)

  • Bishop Museum
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Museum of the City of New York
  • Museum of Science, Boston
  • National Air & Space Museum
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • New York Historical Society
  • North Carolina Museum of History

Participating organisations (U.K.)

  • British Empire and Commonwealth Museum
  • Imperial War Museum
  • St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow
  • Science Museum

Dr Lynda Kelly , Manager Online, Editing and Audience Research
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